Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Baby Jesus brings your Christmas presents...?

It's funny how the Christmas legends vary slightly from one culture to the next. In the US, the story of Saint Nicholas (who traditionally gave small presents on December 6) morphed into "Santa Claus" (via the Dutch "Sinterklaas") -- and moved some of his legendary gift-giving antics to Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, some cultures also have a legendary "Father Christmas" (a.k.a Père Noël or Babbo Natale) who has his own traditions, but sometimes simply merges with the American Santa Claus. But in some German-speaking regions, there's another legend that I find amazingly strange: the Christmas gifts are brought by the Baby Jesus (Christkind).

The Christkind doesn't have quite as elaborate a mythology as Santa Claus, but he is supposed to magically bring the Christmas tree and the gifts during the night on Christmas Eve. I've always been kind of curious about how this works, and I had the opportunity to ask some Austrian friends about it the other day. These friends have kids who are a little younger than ours, and still believe that the Baby Jesus brings their presents.

I explained to them the reason the tradition stuck me as so odd. In the US, there's a whole angst-ridden rite-of-passage when the kid eventually figures out that Santa Claus is just made-up, and then there's a big question (especially in religious households) of whether the kid will extrapolate and start wondering about Jesus. But in Austria, Switzerland, and southern Germany, when the kid figures out that the whole "Christkind" thing was just a story, put-on by their own parents... Well, you kind of skip that intermediate step of having to notice the parallel...

"It's European efficiency," laughed my Austrian friend.

But, seriously, if any believing Christians practice this custom, that has got to be one surreal discussion when the kids figure it out.

"That part about angels announcing Jesus's birth in a manger, that's totally real. The part about the Baby Jesus bringing you presents on Christmas? OK, we admit we were making that up and faking it. But the stuff about Jesus walking on water and rising from the dead? That part is totally real..."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

We're all misfits! Rudolph, Hermy, and the Misfit Toys!

The Grinch and The Year without a Santa Claus may be my favorite Christmas specials, but Rudolph is the one that started it all, and launched the Rankin/Bass Christmas special series.

With its charming characters and catchy tunes (Holly Jolly Christmas!) this one has always been one of my favorites. Its theme -- that it's OK (even great!) to be a misfit -- was something I certainly appreciated as a kid. I imagine it was the same for other kids too.

It's also fun to analyze how this story shows the changes in our cultural attitudes towards bullying. The lyrics to the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" were written in 1939. As the song goes, Rudolph was ostracised and bullied for being different. The song doesn't seem to indicate that there's anything a priori wrong about bullying people for being different -- it only became wrong after Rudolph's defect proved itself to be a strength.

We can see how this works in detail in the (1964) special. When the other young reindeer started laughing and calling Rudolph names, their adult supervisor not only failed to stop the kids from bullying:

He actually compounded the problem and kicked Rudolph out of the class for being different. And Santa himself wasn't much better.

However, in the special, Santa realizes he was wrong for mistreating Rudolph before Rudolph's nose saves the day, so maybe attitudes towards childhood bullying had already changed a bit between 1939 and 1964. And (as I discussed here) we can see further cultural evolution in children's media such as the album Free to Be You and Me.

And now my kids are asking me to put on a Christmas special, so I guess it's time to enjoy it again! Or perhaps one of my other favorites:

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (and the invented origins of the Santa Claus legend)
"The Polar Express" takes belief for belief's sake in whole new directions!
"Nestor the Long-eared Donkey" saves the Christmas™ brand
Mr. White Christmas: The fabulous world of Heat Miser and Snow Miser!!!
The Grinch and the True Meaning of Christmas

Merry Christmas!!